CWC Admin
Jul 4, 2018

'If We Were Villains', by M. L. Rio


July's Online Book Club

hosted by Nikita

Hamlet stirred in my memory. There’s a special providence, he says, in the fall of a sparrow.” (p. 181)



I’m not usually one to read murder mysteries. I sometimes find that a heavy reliance on the development of an intricate and unravelling plot can lead to the underdevelopment of characters. Which is, of course, understandable and not inherently bad, but personally, the connection that I develop with the people who drive a story is most often linked with my overall enjoyment of the novel. This is why I really enjoyed the way that these two aspects were balanced in If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio.


Taking place at a prestigious arts college, the characters are not just suspects—they’re actors, young adults, flawed human beings and hopeless romantics. There is a personal depth to the characters and the relations between them, which adds an extra element of emotional weight to the death that they witness, and the grief they experience from it.


The prologue introduces our main character and narrator Oliver, who is nearing the end of a ten-year prison sentence. Prompted by the retiring officer who convicted him, Oliver decides to recount the events that led to his arrest, suggesting that, as is so often the case in murder mystery novels, there is more to the story than meets the eye; “secrets carry weight, like lead,” (p.11).


Despite the gritty start, the first third of the story actually feels somewhat like a coming-of-age narrative, wherein a group of seven unique, artsy students who relish in their rivalries are working towards their final performances before graduation at the end of the year. It was a strong way to introduce the ensemble of characters, and define their roles in the events to come. Seeing the characters interact behind stage, in between classes, and during rehearsals and performances allows you to get an intimate sense of who these people are. Their personalities are explored through their interactions between each other, and also the characters that they play on stage.


I should probably mention now that there is a lot of Shakespeare in this novel, to an almost pretentious degree. In some cases it’s used almost in replacement of imagery, and even Oliver is aware that his constant quoting of the 18th century playwright is… strange to say the least. “The gallows does well. But how does it well? It does well to those that do ill,” I reply, determined to deserve his annoyance,” (p.10). I found that the use of Shakespearean archetypes to inform the characterisation and decisions of modern-day characters was quite interesting and engaging, but even I grew tired of the constant switching between casual dialogue and quotes in iambic pentameter. If you are not a fan of Shakespeare’s plays, or theatre in general for that matter, then I’m not too sure how thrilled you’ll be, as they both play an integral role in the characters and the plot.


Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’d like to talk about perhaps the most engaging parts of the novel (for me at least), which was the relationship between Oliver and James. Best friends and roommates since starting their studies, their bond was one that captured me from the start. Each time the the two were alone together, their interactions had a deep sincerity, accompanied by the kind of quick-witted back and forth banter that is both entertaining and endearing to see in well-written relationships:

“He folded his comforter back and asked, “Am I still Brutus?”

“No.” I tossed a sock at him. “You’re Antony. For once I get to be the lead.” (p.19)

The first half of the book provides a solid foundation for this relationship to be explored in the latter half, through the tension and conflicts that the plot provides. Watching them navigate the strains that the murder and investigation puts on their friendship was one of the things that kept me so enthralled with this novel.


I also enjoyed the experience of having the murder investigation unravel through the eyes of someone other than the detective. Oliver is often unreliable in his narration, missing details and using his emotions towards other characters to inform his descriptions of them and their actions. He’s often oblivious to the characters around him and their struggles, or, at the very least, misunderstanding of them. This allows for quite a lot of back and forth in terms of suspicions about who could have committed the murder, both from characters in the book and from the reader, “‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘what motive do I have to kill my boyfriend?’” (page 188). There is no heavy-handed red herring to prompt readers to suspect one person so that they can be surprised by the twist at the end. This made the reveal itself quite impactful, because at some point during the story I had suspected each person in the group at least once. This is achieved because our narrator, while playing an active role in the overarching story, actually plays quite a passive role in terms of the murder plot. It’s an interesting dynamic.


For all its positives, the book did have its share of negatives. Oliver’s character tended to lean to the pretentious side at times, and his decision-making skills left something to be desired. There were several Oliver-induced eye rolls while reading, but hey, all characters have got to have some flaws. There was also an interesting and kind of clumsy navigation between the time of the murder, and ten years after when Oliver is in prison. It’s not clumsy in that it’s confusing what timeline you’re in, rather in that the narrative feels disjointed when it’s separated by ten pages for Oliver and Coulson to talk about what we had just read. While a device that was necessary at times, the back and forth between each act grew tiresome.


Despite this, If We Were Villains was incredibly enjoyable, and definitely a must-read if you like murder mysteries, theatre, Shakespeare, or even just interesting casts of characters. It provided the deep and immersive development of character that I sometimes find lacking in murder mysteries, while staying true to the need for an intricate plot. It also provided a conclusion that left me simultaneously satisfied and wanting more, which I find is sometimes the best way to end a story.


Content Warnings

Graphic depiction of death, drug use, struggle with mental health

New Posts
  • CWC Admin
    Jun 20, 2018

    In July we'll be reading If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio. Enter the players. There were seven of us then, seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of us. Until that year, we saw no further than the books in front of our faces. [ Image Source ]
  • CWC Admin
    Jun 3, 2018

    June's Online Book Club hosted by Max Vos 'Destiny is an easy god,' he said. 'It relieves you of the burden of choice, and the tragedy of having no choice at all.' He smiled at her. 'How's that? Am I profound enough for you?' I’ve never read a book like this before. It’s very out of my typical tastes, but how better to start a local online book club than to start with a local award-winner? Reading Extinctions is like travelling into the mind of the elderly person you hate, or at least this is what it was like for me. I’ve also never read a book like this before, meaning my copy is dog-eared, blistered, bent, and scribbled-in like no other book I own (for the time being). I doubt Caroline would approve: "You would never do that now – mark a specimen like that. You would never sully the mute purity of nature with the indelible mark of the human hand" (p.138). Whoops. I underlined that sentence, wrote "like what I’m doing!" in the margin, and dog-eared the bottom corner of the page to remember it later. Not all my notes are positive, but this reflects more on the characters (who are vivid and irritating at times) than on the author. While the protagonist Frederick Lothian is somewhat sensitive, he is not sensitive to others; he laughs louder than his company to reassert his masculinity, he it perpetually confused by the emotions of his wife (and other people in general), and he's befuddled by his daughter's ability to think; "Caroline was thinking very deeply, and it annoyed the hell out of Frederick" (p.34). He is impatient, unsympathetic, selfish, self-important, and at only at the end of his life does he seem to grasp the concept of personal responsibility. His way of life is proper, he’s inconsiderate, and even at the end doesn't redeem himself quite the way he thinks he does. But it isn't all about Fred. "Fred could not bear it when women cried. It was so - demanding ." (p.105). Any depart from Fred's internal monologue in this book was a blessing. The first gay character Paul only lived for a page before being killed off by AIDS. Fred and Jan both seem incessant on categorising the behaviours specific to men and women, "I just can't imagine a woman collecting this furniture [...] it seems so unlike a woman", says Jan. "It was unnerving to have tears in his office", thinks Fred (p. 45). "You know what women are like," (p.75). There are at least a dozen pages where he makes a remark like "women were so easily distracted" (p.94), which I have underlined and written some variation of "UGH" in the border. While I don’t like it, the novel doesn’t depart from realism – small, secret, and private details that are affected by the world at large, and Wilson captures Perth perfectly. I can’t describe just how she does that. But this book deals with a lot. Endings, beginnings, grief, love, race, and the feeling of disappearing, primarily with change and the passage of time. With monsters. Even in the golden years of his life, Fred is still in a transitional state. He has regrets he’s harboured—in most cases, rightfully so—and memories and reflections he returns to. Throughout the story we see him evolve, from a man obsessed with modernism and design, a cold academic with an affinity for architecture and concrete. So much concrete. The first Book "Columns" deals with memory, the second, "Bridges", with history and its passage, personal history. "That was another thing he couldn't stand," writes Wilson, "the way everyone acted as if the past was golden " (p.90). I agreed with Fred there. He is surrounded by concrete, and eventually you pick up that he's sinking into it, until he meets Jan. Then he becomes on edge, "like a setter with a bird in the bush" (p.68). His old architectural allegories disappear into animal ones. Nothing is ever enough for our protagonist, and that's what simultaneously makes him infuriating and nuanced at the same time. In his vulnerable moments with Jan in the car, we see him turn to animals. He thinks of the dolphin waiting for him in the ocean, the girls from the limousine who behave like giraffes and camels, and his feeling of pathetic-ness is a feeling of "crawling across the floor like a cockroach" (p.178). Medical students "fussed around him, like ducks after stale bread" (p.234). A waiter wearing oyster-coloured pants turns into an oyster: "he caught the waiter’s eye and watched the oyster scuttle over for his empty flute and then swim off in the direction of the mermaid" (p.187). We get the sense that Fred is a lone survivor in a jungle, looking for civilisation and his oh-so-familiar friend, concrete. But then, Wilson says, if we're going to look at animals, we have to look at where they come from (Book 3: "Eggs") and where they're going (extinct). While it’s not my kind of book, maybe that’s the point. Young people are disillusioned with the elderly (though this book isn't only about them), either as a concept or as people, and that’s always been the way of things. Despite not always agreeing with the characters, I’ll return to Dylan Marron’s motto: " empathy is not endorsement ". While I can’t endorse many of the characters’ beliefs or Fred’s obsessions with modernism, I can empathise that they come from times and places and pasts that I will never experience, and that the generations after ours will probably feel the same way towards us as we do to our predecessors. Maybe that’s a story that we should read, despite its inevitable ending. I feel like there's more to discuss. Some of my favourite quotes: How is that that we live these lives of such intense detail, where moment to moment we have people we love all around us, and we have to act and think about and decide so many things, and then it is all gone? All that detail is lost, and we return to dirt. (p.34) People will attach themselves to the most arbitrary of things. He knew that now. Attachment was not a logical business. (p.13) Thinking had usurped sleeping, although you could hardly call it thought. Thinking was not supposed to be disconnected from the person doing it. (p.89) Blind hope: could this be an incubator [...] not some egg abandoned on a cliff face, but something warm and alive, something that might, with care and attention - with what might even be called love - become a living thing? (p.118) You could snap your fingers at one end of the galaxy and you'd hear it at the other . (p. 184) She knew the history, and films like that ruin the truth, she told her friends; they overstate things, or fall short. But even then she had felt unsteady in her convictions. After all, what else can any story be, but too much, or not enough? (p.258) Discussion Questions How well do you think the themes of grief and loss were represented in the book? This novel also deals with race, and its supposed 'extinction'. Do you think the book handles this subject well? Share a favourite quote from the book below, and explain why. Who was your favourite character? Do the characters seem familiar, realistic, or grounded? Do you think the book represents Perth well? Does the setting feel vivid? Would you read another book by Josephine Wilson? The blurb of my copy says: “Humorous, poignant and galvanising by turns, Extinctions is a novel about all kinds of extinction – natural, racial, national and personal – and what we can do to prevent them.” Do you agree that this sums up the novel properly? Content Warnings (by page) (p.38) - induced vomiting (p.40-1) - eating disorder mention (p.41) - heroin mention (p.49) - racism and sexism mention, implied rape and abuse (p.51) - implied rape and assault (p.78) - heroin mention (p.105) - child abuse (p.158) - child abuse, domestic violence (p.168) - alcoholism mention (p.194) - child abuse mention (p.220) - child abuse mention (p.223) - child abuse mention (p.263) - child abuse (p.278) - murder, domestic abuse mention Next month... In July, we'll be reading If We Were Villains , by M. L. Rio [ Source ]
  • CWC Admin
    May 18, 2018

    For June's book club (and the first ever online book club entry), our Editor-in-Chief Max Vos will be looking at Josephine Wilson's novel Extinctions . Josephine Wilson is an academic at Curtin University, and Extinctions won the 2017 Miles Franklin award after being first published in 2016 by UWA Press. [ Source ]: Author and academic Josephine Wilson posing with flowers and a grey background, with her novel Extinctions .

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